Though an experienced, accomplished director on the smaller screen, Philippa Lowthorpe tries her hand – for the very first time – in the world of cinema, by bringing Arthur Ransome’s timeless literary classic Swallows and Amazons to the big screen. In so doing she introduces a tale that has tapped into the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike across the last century to a new generation. That said, here’s a film caught between demographics, perhaps likely to be more popular amongst the parents in the crowd, than the kids they’ve taken along with them.
We delve into the life of the Walkers, as a mother of five (Kelly Macdonald) takes her offspring away for a much needed holiday in the Lake District. With a lack of patriarchal presence, given her husband is away, the eldest son John (Dane Hughes) takes on the role, though he’s hardly much help when part of the chorus of pleas, to allow the children to set off to a remote island and camp for a few days – without any adults. Reluctantly agreeing, Mrs. Walker waves John, Susan (Orla Hill), Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and Roger (Bobby McCulloch) off, as the self-titled Swallows row into the distance.
However upon their arrival, they notice they aren’t the only youngsters on the island, with two competitive sisters – going by the name of the Amazons – already inhabiting the land. As they lock horns, a more potent, genuine threat is upon them, as Captain Flint (Rafe Spall) a local travel writer-cum-spy, is being pursued by the Russian gangster Lazlov (Andrew Scott) and his accomplice – all of the children become involved in this dangerous game of cat and mouse.
Though suffering from a rather televisual approach, perhaps not enlarged accordingly to suit the silver screen, there remains a charming, indelible tone to this amiable picture, and one that has been remarkably well cast. Not just the leading roles either, as the likes of Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes make up the supporting roles, which makes a world of difference. The real star of the show, in this instance though, is Scott – who makes for such an absorbing, layered villain. The actor can’t not bring a subtle sense of vulnerability to proceedings, and given the character of Lazlov can so easily be played as something of a pantomime villain, to have an actor of this calibre adding such nuance to the part, it enriches the narrative a tremendous amount.
If there is one thing guaranteed with adapting Ransome’s classic piece of literature, it’s that, at the very least, you’re dealing with a strong story. As Swallows and Amazons is a tale that is exceedingly easy to immerse ourselves in. So all that’s left is the execution, and how this story is being presented – and thankfully Lowthorpe does a commendable effort, albeit a somewhat generic one in parts.